Everyone has in mind those images of young women fainting, yelling, screaming and gesticulating when the 1960s English band The Beatles arrived on scene to perform. Before this craze was dubbed the “Beatlemania”, those young women were called “hysterics”.
The 19th century term is now commonly used not only to describe women such as The Beatles’ yelling and screaming fans, but as a simple synonym for “being crazy”. Most women would recognize having heard a woman—men seem to be protected of this— been pointed at for extravagant behavior by an exclamation such as “you’re so hysterical !” “Hysteria” has shifted from a diagnosis to an insult which looks like a gender condemnation. As if being a woman is thought to be a weakness. Hysteria is obviously not a buried and old fashion matter since the term still echoes in our contemporary society. What the word meant then and what does it resound today ?
Hysteria in the 19th century
The French theorist J.M Charcot (1825- 1893)—who made the word enter the clinical jargon— and later on psychologists S. Freud and J.Breuer , created a trend for “hysteria” diagnosis. Serious cases of hysteria pathologies certainly existed. Many women who may only had nervous breakdowns were diagnosed as hysterics and were prescribed the “rest cure” — the less done the better.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860 – 1935) was assigned to follow this therapy, until she interrupted it before having a mental breakdown. After this trauma, she decided to sum up and to fantasize her own experience into a short story,“The Yellow Wallpaper”. Shaped as diary entries, the story is about a married woman compelled to cloister herself up for a couple of months in a country house. In order to cure the “hysterical tendencies” caused by her pregnancy, she is prohibited to do any creative nor intellectual work. The narrator recounts her thoughts, dreams and above all her obsession with the yellow wallpaper of her bedroom in which she stays all day and night long. Its pattern becomes—together with the writing of her diary— her only distraction and escape from the stubborn cure her physician husband John imposes on her. As she writes, she falls into a deeper depression which her husband fails to see.
The Yellow Wallpaper : a haunted story
It is hard to tell if the story was intended to demystify the cure, the diagnosis of hysteria or to convey a critical judgement on the role played by women in society at the time. Nevertheless this gothic text appears today as a progressive pamphlet in favor of women’s cause, which still awakens vivid controversies today. Such issues as woman’s authority, domination, sexuality and, as a whole, the issue of woman’s freedom punctuate the text thanks to metaphors and allusions.
Two important images are the “haunted house” in which the narrator has to rest, and the “atrocious nursery” where she is kept until the end of the cure. Both are extensively described in negative terms and constitute metaphors for woman’s power limitations in 19th century American society. Similarly, the control of woman is viewed throughout the consented and calculated domination of the wife (the narrator) by her husband John : treated like a child because she is supposedly “hysteric”, she leaves her power of decision in his hands. The woman is taken care of, in a place where she is “quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village”. Kept inside, she glances at moonlight, which might stand as a “feminine” light, through the two windows, one of which symbolizes her wishes of freedom while the other her ties to family and social norms.
Frustrated at having no intellectual work, the narrator gets obsessed with the yellow wallpaper of her bedroom. It has patterns that “curl” and she is finally persuaded that it locks up a woman “creeping” to come out of the “repellant”, “unclean”, “revolting”, or again “horrid” paper. To carry the metaphor further, the wallpaper might illustrate the 19th century patriarchal society that “tortures” (p.163) the female heroine who is “creeping” with all her might to be released of its grip. Also, the hysterical state surely was a reaction against the former Victorian era were women’s emotions had to be shut. In this regards, the “great and nailed down immovable bed” (p.159) can stand as an image of a repressed sexuality. Seemingly, her gaze constantly wanders toward the garden, full of “mysterious deep-shaded arbors” and “riotous old-fashioned flowers”, an eroticized Garden of Eden which is a fantasized way out of her repressed sexuality.
There is of course a lot more to be said about the literary wealth of the text, and somehow it seems that readers will never get out of the wallpaper maze. Even though the issues have lost some of their colors, it is interesting to take them up in our contemporary society. Rare were the men who were diagnosed as hysterics, and nowadays, rare are the men qualified as such. Likewise in the 1960s, there were no “hysteric” male fans of the Beatles. Although the French scientist Charcot did write that men could be hysterics, the term remained a gendered word. There were surely significant reasons that drove women to act in such a way, just like the astonishing trial of the witches of Salem in the 16th century did. However, why the noun “hysteric” is still in use— just as the word “witch”— and why it is still associated with femininity ? Why is the word not cross-gender ? At any rate, the craze is not over since many movies such as Hysteria by Tanya Wexler, A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, Antichrist by Lars von Trier, and to quote French cinema Betty Blue by Jean-Jacques Beinex (adaptation of a novel written by Philippe Djian) and very recently Augustine by Alice Winocour, question woman’s hysteria.
A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg
Antichrist by Lars von Trier
Augustine by Alice Winocour